Tottenham Hotspur: Assessment After First Five Games
When four consecutive wins to start a season is the best return since the Glory, Glory Days of the 1960/61 campaign, it is easy to see why optimism has been high on The High Road of N17.
While 12 points from a possible 15 represents a huge numerical improvement on last season, nine of those points were taken in the corresponding fixtures last campaign. If you substitute Birmingham for West Brom as a newly promoted midlands club, none of the points earned have come from a different source.
In fact, by losing to the Champions on Saturday, Tottenham are one point worse off than in the same fixtures last season. Admittedly, this is a pessimistic viewpoint, and fails to take into account the manner of the victories Spurs have enjoyed.
The performances versus Liverpool, West Ham and Hull were all vast improvements on the displays last year, and that should be the reason why hopes are high.
Ever since Martin Jol steered Spurs to consecutive fifth place finishes in 2006 and 2007, there have been expectations that Tottenham could be the team to break the “big four” hegemony. Spurs have not been shy in the transfer market, and Redknapp now has a strong squad at his disposal, with depth in most positions.
Bolstering a notoriously porous defence is always a priority for any Spurs manager, while maintaining an emphasis on the attractive style of football Tottenham fans like to claim as their own.
The arrival of Bassong provides extra strength to a centre back corps which always looks good on paper, but rarely gets a chance to show it on the field. King will never be able to play more than two games in eight days, Woodgate has a terrible injury history, and Dawson has begun to miss matches with recurring niggles. Corluka can provide cover, but lacks pace.
Hutton, Bale, Assou-Ekotto and Naughton are all competent full-backs, without being an elite group; while Gomes and Cudicini both have their critics as goalkeepers. Spurs are yet to keep a clean-sheet this season, which instantly puts pressure on the attacking players.
While no one can deny the quality of performances up to Saturday’s game, that match highlighted the differences between a perennial title challenger and an ambitious hopeful.
The loss of Luka Modric with a fractured fibula was exaggerated against United. Instead of slotting Kranjcar in as a direct replacement on the left side of midfield, Redknapp opted to play Keane in that position, with Crouch making a first league start partnering Defoe.
The ensuing lack of balance led to excessive pressure being placed on Palacios in front of the back four, and United’s victory became inevitable.
It was a shame for the Honduran to put in a very tired looking performance in such a high-profile fixture, as he has undoubtedly been a star performer so far. His muscular and energetic presence in the “holding role” has been a revelation, and finally provided some steel to a midfield that has continually been criticised for being lightweight.
With the Premier League being home to players from all corners of the globe, tiredness after international matches is predictable as they jet back from various far-flung places. For Tottenham, an ineffective Palacios meant that Rooney, Berbatov and Scholes enjoyed relative freedom, when on a different day they may not have had the luxury.
Joining Palacios as a standout player so far is Aaron Lennon. For club and country, Lennon has been playing with an attacking flair and confidence that makes him a danger every time he has the ball at his feet. Genuine pace, and the ability to push defenders back makes him a dangerous proposition, and with his assist on Steven Gerrard’s first goal for England last Wednesday, he looks to have added a final pass to his repertoire.
Much has been made of Defoe’s scoring form this season, and his continued selection ahead of Crouch and Pavyluchenko is certainly justified. His strike on Saturday emphasised the confidence he is currently enjoying. A long run of good form will make sure Spurs remain competitive.
It was certainly a disappointment to surrender the 100 percent record to United, especially with a tough trip to Stamford Bridge on the horizon. Tottenham have not won at Chelsea since 1990, and have collected only four points there in 15 years.
However, it is not the matches against the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea which will define Tottenham’s season. In order to push into the top four, Spurs need to consistently beat those teams who are competing for the same positions.
Points need to be taken from Aston Villa, Everton, Blackburn, Manchester City and Fulham; and the struggling teams need to be beaten.
Too many times have Tottenham given a good performance against a Liverpool or an Arsenal, only to see hard work undone by sloppily losing at home to a Sunderland or a Hull. It is a steady accumulation of points that will show progress.
Only one defeat at White Hart Lane in 2009 demonstrates solidity at home, and provides an excellent base. Not giving up points cheaply to apparently inferior opposition will be the key to further improvement, and will keep the team competitive.
This is of course dependent on personnel. Tottenham have quality throughout their squad, and reasonable depth, but Redknapp knows his first XI, and may not have confidence in some of those who could be called on to deputise should first-teamers suffer injury or suspension.
There are reasons to be hopeful at The Lane, and a top four finish is not inconceivable, but a more realistic ambition would be to break back into the top six. This would represent a significant achievement in a league which has provided three Champions League semi finalists for the last two seasons.
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